Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Festen

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

FESTEN

10/10

(The Celebration; aka Dogme 1 – Festen)
Denmark 1998,
dir. Thomas Vinterberg,
105m

Festen was the first product from the ‘Dogme’ group, a quartet of Danish film-makers who wanted to see what would happen if they stripped away moviemaking to its bare essentials. So far the experiment must be counted a terrific success: the three releases (so far) work because they show how talented directors can transform what appear to be restrictions – no special effects, no voiceovers or added sound effects, no artificial lighting, etc – into mighty liberations.

While the second and third films – Lars Von Trier’s Idioterne and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune – are both powerful and interesting movies, they’re still a light year behind what Vinterberg came up with: in an era of effects-crazy blockbusters that take years to make, Festen is all the more bracing for appearing to have been thrown together in the course of a single day.

FestenVinterberg’s debut feature The Biggest Heroes was interesting if ultimately disappointingly conventional, but with Festen he well and truly cuts loose, showing a staggering fluency with his hand-held camera. But the rough-edged look of the film isn’t gratutious, it’s entirely in keeping with the subject matter – a rich patriarch’s sixtieth birthday party which opens up the family’s numerous deep emotional wounds – as it becomes a kind of demented home video chronicle of events.

Vinterberg’s astonishingly fresh grasp of technique is remarkable it itself, but Festen goes much deeper – the actors seem as hungry to make the most of the material as the director, who co-wrote the script with Mogens Rukov. Especially noteworthy is Ulrich Thomsen, as the introspective, volatile eldest son whose ‘tribute’ speech to his father sets the ball rolling – he looks alarmingly like Laurence Olivier, and he has the talent to go with it (he was the best thing about Biggest Heroes).

Like all truly great films, Festen resonates on multiple levels without ever feeling forced or clever-clever. It’s what might have happened if Bunuel had ever tackled Hamlet – psychological and political and anarchic and subversive, a punk sensibility grabbing hold of the cinema’s latent potential and smashing down the boundaries.

For films rated 9 and 10 check out the Hall of Fame

by Neil Young